Wispy white clouds drifting across an azure sky greeted us as we arrived in Cape Town a few days ago. Marc (WhiskyBrother) and I had been invited down to attend the 125th anniversary celebrations of the James Sedgwick Distillery, home of my beloved Three Ships and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky.
A short commute later, we arrived at the distillery’s entrance. A thrill of excitement ran through me as I took in the distillery from the road, with its iconic pagoda-shaped still house roof (which was put in place on the 17th of June 1997, the day the British Lions played South Africa in Wellington – the Lions won 51 – 22), and the dam in the foreground, complete with its water-borne birdlife.
Andy Watts, the James Sedgwick Distillery’s manager and master distiller was on hand to greet us as we disembarked. It was quite a surreal moment for me – who would have thought a few months back that I would not only be at the very source of my beloved whisky, but shaking the hand of it’s creator.
The venue for the day’s celebrations was the old maturation store which was renovated during 2010 and opened with the launch of the Three Ships 10 year old Single Malt in October 2010. What a wonderful building, oozing genus loci (spirit of place) thanks to the rows of casks stacked to the ceiling at the rear, the innovative use of a salvaged copper pot still (now a fireplace) and tasteful decor – including a glass cabinet proudly displaying the whiskies produced on site, and displays on the walls detailing the history of whisky and the different production techniques for malt and grain whiskies.
As I took in the building, Andy told us about how there were two tiers in the old maturation store, hence the reason for the large openings half way up the walls: that was where the barrels were rolled in. He also pointed out how over the years, the large doorways on the ground had been scuffed away as the barrels were rolled out of the store once maturation was complete. Very early into my visit I picked up on how important the history of the distillery was not only to Andy, but Distell themselves. This was reinforced when I met Oom Hannes Louw, who served as distillery manager for 24 years prior to Andy taking over.
With Three Ships Bourbon Cask cocktail in hand, it was time to mingle with the other guests. It was here that I finally got to put faces to the names of the whisky folk I have been interacting with on the web, or read about in local publications. Shayne Dowling, Marsh Middleton and Fiona MacDonald from Whisky Mag SA, Bernard Gutman (Premium Spirits blog), Paul laCock (Aficionados), Mark Burridge (The Whisky Club), the legendary Dave Hughes, Jonathan Miles (Whisky Academy) and many more. What a great bunch of people. It was a real privilege to be able to interact with these passionate whisky lovers, and learn more about whisky.
After taking our seats in anticipation of the celebratory meal, Andy welcomed all the guests to the celebration. Not only were we celebrating the James Sedgwick Distillery’s 125 years, but Andy’s 20 years as distillery manager. It is interesting to note that there have only been six managers in the distillery’s 125 year history (including Andy) – an impressive feat! Andy shared some more history of the distillery, and made special mention of Piet Groenewald, an employee of the distillery for 40 years, retiring in 2010. Piet was a man that answered the call at all hours come rain or shine and simply got things done. In honour of his long service, the two new copper pot stills at the distillery are named “Oom Piet se Pot” (translated: Uncle Piet’s Pots) – a touching tribute, and yet another thing that reinforces for me the heritage and history to be found at the South African distillery.
The day also served as the launch of the second of a series of three commemorative editions of its 10 year-old single malt whisky celebrating the pioneering spirit of explorers in days gone by. The series kicked off last year, commemorating the journey of Bartholomew Diaz. This year it was the turn of Vasco da Gama, the first European navigator to reach India.
After a tasty starter, paired with the Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky (South Africa’s first single grain whisky), Johan Venter – Distell’s Primary Production Director – presented us with a brief history lesson of the man the distillery takes its name from: Captain James Sedgwick. For a full transcript of his speech, which also touched upon the history of whisky production in South Africa, click here.
Then it was time for the main course, hand-picked by Andy. A delicious, melt in your mouth, beef fillet with a delectable blue cheese sauce accompanied by some superb roasted baby vegetables and potatoes. The Three Ships 5 year old Premium Select, Andy’s favourite, proved to be the perfect whisky match for the meal. The sweet, smoky peat taste of the ISC 2010 Gold awarded whisky worked beautifully with the blue cheese sauce. In fact, I reckon that is dram with any cheese would be a real winning combination.
As the end of the day’s proceedings were drawing closer, we were invited on a quick tour of the distillery itself. “Dessert be damned!” I thought to myself, this is something I was definitely not going to miss out on. A 3000km roundtrip to a distillery and not see the inner workings? You must be crazy.
Our first stop was the still house, standing tall and proud. I must admit, I didn’t catch much of what was said inside as I was too busy taking photos. I did hear that malt is only distilled for two months of the year, namely July and August – the Cape’s winter months. The two new copper pot stills used to distil the malt (which replaced 10 smaller pots) were part of the massive upgrade project that took place between March 2009 and June 2010. The pot stills were manufactured by Forsyth’s of Scotland with the design being based on the pot stills at the Bowmore distillery on Islay, Scotland where Andy spent time learning about whisky.
The continuous stills along with the fermentation tanks were part of the upgrade project and the gleaming metal is a testament to the “newness” of it all. All this new equipment is managed by a world class, state-of-the-art control system which Andy can even access from his phone if the need arises. Gone are the old days of manually adjusting flow rates and regulating temperatures. In recognition of this innovation and Distell’s investment project, the international Whisky Magazine named the distillery as it’s 2011 Whisky Brand Innovator of the Year in their Icons of Whisky awards earlier this year.
After viewing the fermentation tanks, it was time for my favourite part – a peek at the maturation store. Rows upon rows upon rows of casks, some empty, most full, patiently sitting there. The wood imparting its flavours as time passes. I think I could have spent hours in there, just sitting with the whisky, marking time. But all good things come to an end, and it was time to head back for dessert.
The creamy toffee dessert with peppermint ice-cream and a dram of the Three Ships 10 Year Old whisky helped pull me back into the present, and then all too soon, the festivities were over and it was time to say goodbye and head back to Johannesburg. I hope to return again someday and spend more time at the distillery. The good news for all Three Ships and Bain’s whisky lovers is that they are planning on opening a visitor centre sometime in the future, so we will all be able to visit this wonderful place someday.
I would like to thank all at Distell and De Kock Communications for the opportunity to be present for the celebrations, it was truly an honour. Special thanks go out to Liezl Dippenaar (Distell), Linda Christensen (DKC) and, of course, Andy Watts for giving me a day that will live on in my memory for ages to come.